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The Bookshelf: Gambrinus

29 Nov, 2020
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The Bookshelf: Gambrinus

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For the first time, Alexander Kuprin visited Odessa in 1897 and since then has repeatedly visited our southern city. Odessa inspired the writer to create many works such as "The Gambrinus". The main action takes place in the pub of the same name "Gambrinus", which is named in honor of King Gambrinus, a certain patron of the beer business.


I

This was the name of a beerhouse in a bustling seaport town in southern Russia. Situated in one of the busiest thoroughfares, it was, nevertheless, rather hard to find because of its underground position. Even a regular customer, well known at the Gambrinus, often somehow missed that famous establishment, and walked past two or three neighbouring shops before he turned back.

No sign marked the house. Customers went in from the pavement through a narrow door that always stood open. An equally narrow staircase of twenty stone steps, battered and deformed by millions of heavy boots, led down from the entrance. On the wall facing the bottom of the stairs was a painted ten-foot alto-relievo image of King Gambrinus, the famous patron of brewers. It looked as if it had been crudely hewn out of petrified blocks of sponge, and must have been the first creation of an amateur; but the red doublet, the ermine cloak, the golden crown and the tankard raised high and running over with white foam, left no room for doubt: here in person was the great patron of brewers.

The place consisted of two long but exceedingly low vaulted halls. Subterranean moisture was for ever trickling down the stone walls, glittering in the light of gas-jets, which burned day and night because the place had no windows. Traces of droll murals were, however, still discernible. One painting represented a large company of carousing young Germans in green sporting jackets and with pheasant feathers in their hats, their fowling-pieces slung across their shoulders. Facing the hall, they all greeted you with raised tankards, two of them, moreover, holding by the waist two plump wenches—waitresses at the village inn, or perhaps daughters of a goodly farmer. Another mural depicted a high-life picnic in the first half of the eighteenth century; genteel countesses and viscounts in powdered wigs frolicked with Lambs on a green meadow, and close by, under a clump of spreading willows, was a pond with swans fed gracefully by ladies and their escorts, who were sitting in a golden shell-like contraption. The next painting showed the interior of a Ukrainian cottage and happy rustics dancing the hopak with bottles of horilka in their hands. Farther on stood in all its splendour a big barrel with two fulsomely fat, red-faced and thick-lipped Cupids on it, decked with vines and hop leaves, and staring with shamelessly oily eyes as they clinked shallow wineglasses. The second hall, separated from the first by an arch, displayed scenes from frog life: frogs drinking beer in a green swamp, chasing dragonflies among the rushes, playing in a string quartet, fencing, and soon. The painter had obviously been a foreigner.

Instead of tables, heavy oak barrels stood on the floor, which was thickly strewn with sawdust, and small kegs did duty as chairs. To the right of the entrance was a low dais with a piano. There Sashka the musician, a meek, bald-headed Jew of uncertain age, always drunk and gay, looking like a shabby ape, had for many years played the violin every night to cheer and entertain the customers. As the years rolled by waiters in leather cuffs were succeeded by others; so were caterers and deliverers of beer, and even the proprietors of the house. But every day at six Sashka would invariably be sitting on the dais, with his violin in his hands and a little white dog on his knees, and towards one o'clock in the morning he would leave the Gambrinus, groggy with the beer he had drunk, in the company of Snowdrop, the little dog.

However, there was another permanent character at the Gambrinus—Mme Ivanova, the barmaid. She was a stout, bloodless old woman, who, having spent all her time in the damp basement, had come to resemble one of those lazy white fishes that dwell in the depths of sea grottoes. Like a skipper from his bridge, she silently ordered the waiters about from the eminence of the bar and smoked endlessly, holding the cigarette in the right corner of her mouth and screwing up her right eye against the smoke. Few people ever heard her voice, and to all who greeted her with a bow she always gave the same faded smile.

II

The huge harbour, one of the biggest in the world, was always crammed with ships. Giant dreadnoughts, dark with rust, put into it. Yellow, thick-funnelled steamers of the Dobrovolny Line, bound for the Far East, took cargo there, daily swallowing up trainloads of goods or thousands of convicts. In spring or autumn, hundreds of flags from every corner of the globe fluttered in the wind, and orders and oaths in every imaginable tongue rang out from morning till night. Dockers scurried to the countless warehouses and back to the ships over swinging gangplanks. They were Russian tramps, ragged and almost naked, with puffy drunkards' faces; swarthy Turks, dirty-turbaned and wearing baggy trousers that were very wide to the knees and close-fitting below; thickset, muscular Persians, their hair and nails dyed with henna to a bright carrot colour. Two-or three-masted Italian schooners were frequent callers; they were beautiful to look at from a distance, with their tiered sails, pure and white and round like the breasts of young women. And as these shapely vessels came into view round the lighthouse, they were, especially on a bright spring morning, like wonderful white visions floating, not in water, but in the air above the horizon. High-topped Anatolian kachirmas and Trebizond feluccas of strange colours, with carvings and grotesque ornaments, bobbed for months in the dirty green water of the harbour, amid rubbish, egg-shells, watermelon rinds, and flocks of white sea-gulls. Occasionally a strange narrow ship would run in under black paid sails, with a bit of soiled cloth for a flag; rounding the jetty and all but grazing it with her side, she would rush at full speed into harbour, heeling hard, and, amid a babel of curses and threats, come alongside a random pier, where her crew—stark naked bronzed little men jabbering gutturally—would furl the ragged sails with unaccountable rapidity, and the dingy, mysterious ship would instantly become as quiet as if she were dead. And just as mysteriously she would steal out of harbour on a dark night, without putting on her lights. At night the bay swarmed with the light boats of smugglers. Fishermen brought in their haul from far and near: in spring the tiny anchovy, of which it took millions to fill the boats, in summer the ugly plaice, in autumn mackerel, the fat grey mullet and oysters, and in winter the white sturgeon— anything from three to six hundredweights each, often caught at the risk of men's lives, many miles from the shore.

All those men—sailors from various countries, fishermen, stokers, light-hearted ship's boys, harbour thieves, engineers, workmen, dockers, boatmen, divers, smugglers —were young and robust, steeped in the tang of sea and fish; they knew what hard work was, loved the beauty and terror of daily risk, and prized above all else strength, prowess and the sting of strong language, and on shore they gave themselves up with savage relish to wild revelry, to drink and fighting. After nightfall the lights of the big city, running uphill from the harbour, would lure them like shining magic eyes, always promising something new and joyous, something they had not yet tried, and always deceiving them.

The city was linked with the harbour by narrow, steep, cranked streets where law-abiding citizens preferred not to venture at night. At every turn you came upon doss-houses with dingy latticed windows, with the dismal light of a single lamp inside. Still more numerous were the shops where you could sell your clothes down to your sailor's singlet or buy yourself any sea garb. There were also a great many beerhouses, taverns and eating-houses with expressive signs in all languages, and not a few brothels, public or illegal, from whose doorways at night coarsely painted women called to seamen in husky voices. In the Greek coffee-houses customers played dominoes or cards, and in the Turkish ones they could have night lodgings for five kopeks and smoke the narghile; there were small Oriental taverns that served snails, limpets, shrimps, mussels, large warted cuttle-fish, and other sea creatures. In garrets and cellars, behind tightly closed shutters, were gambling haunts where a game of faro or baccara often wound up with a ripped belly or a broken skull and where, just round the corner, sometimes in an adjoining cubicle, one could get rid of any stolen article, from a diamond bracelet to a silver cross, from a bale of Lyonese velvet to a sailor's greatcoat.

Those steep, narrow lanes, black with coal-dust, always grew sticky and fetid towards nightfall, as if they sweated in a nightmare. They were like gutters or filthy sewers down which the big international city ejected into the sea all its offal, all its rot and garbage and vice, which infected strong sinewy bodies and simple souls.

The roistering inhabitants of that district seldom went up to the elegant, trim city with its plate-glass shop windows, proud monuments, electric lights, asphalt pavements, rows of white acacias, and majestic policemen, a city flaunting cleanliness and comfort. But before throwing away his hard-earned, greasy, ragged ruble notes every one of them was sure to drop into the Gambrinus. It was a time-honoured custom, though it meant making your way, under cover of the night, to the very heart of the city.

True, many of the customers could not have told you the difficult name of the celebrated beer king. Someone would simply say, "Shall we go to Sashka's?"

Someone else would reply, "Ay-ay, sir! Keep her so."

And then they would all say in chorus, "Anchors aweigh!" No wonder that, among the harbour and sea people, Sashka enjoyed greater respect and fame than, say, the local bishop or governor. And it is certain that, if not his name, then his lively ape's face and his violin were recalled once in a while in Sydney or Plymouth, in New York, Vladivostok, Constantinople or Ceylon, not to speak of all the bays and sounds of the Black Sea, where he had many admirers among the courageous fishermen.

III

Usually Sashka came to the Gambrinus before anyone else had arrived, except one or two chance customers. The thick stale smell of last night's beer pervaded the two halls, and it was gloomy there because gas was burned sparingly in the daytime. It was quiet and cool down there on hot July days, while the stone-built city was deafened by the uproar in the streets, and sweltered in the sun.

Sashka would walk up to the bar, greet Mme Ivanova and drink his first mug of beer. Sometimes she begged him, "Play something, Sashka, will you?"

"What would you like me to play, Mme Ivanova?" Sashka asked obligingly. He was always exquisitely polite to her.

"Something of your own."

He sat down in his customary place, to the left of the piano, and played strange, melancholy pieces. The basement sank into a drowsy quiet, except that once in a while you heard the muffled rumbling of the city above, or the muted clatter and tinkle of plates end glasses in the kitchen behind the partition. Sashka's violin wept with the Jews' sorrow, a sorrow as ancient as the world, woven and entwined with the sad flowers of national melodies. At that twilight hour, his face with the tense chin and bowed head, with eyes gazing sternly up from beneath brows that had suddenly grown heavy, was quite different from the face which all the Gambrinus customers knew—grinning, winking, dancing. Snowdrop, the little dog, sat on his knees. She had long since learned not to howl along with the music, but the passionate sorrow, the sobbing, cursing notes, affected her in spite of herself: she would open her mouth in wide convulsive yawns and curl back her pink little tongue, and for a moment her small body and delicate, black-eyed face would tremble nervously.

Then the house began to fill, Sashka's accompanist came after finishing some daytime business at the tailor's or watch-maker's, sausages in hot water and cheese sandwiches were displayed on the bar counter, and finally all the gas-jets were lighted. Sashka drank another mug, said to his partner, " 'May Parade,' ein, zwei, drei!" and struck up an impetuous march. From then on he had a hard time bowing to endless new-comers, each of whom considered himself Sashka's special friend, and looked proudly at the other customers to see if they had noticed Sashka bowing to him. As he played Sashka squinted one eye, then the other, furrowed his bald, sloping skull into long wrinkles, moved his lips in a comic way, and lavished smiles all around.

By ten or eleven o'clock the Gambrinus, which could serve more than two hundred customers at a time, was packed. Nearly half the customers came with women in kerchiefs; no one minded the place being crowded, his foot being trodden on or his hat crumpled, or somebody spilling beer over his trousers; if anyone took offence it was merely because he was drunk and itching to work up a brawl. The moisture of the cellar, gleaming dimly, trickled even more abundantly from the walls covered with oil paint, and the condensed breath of the crowd fell from the ceiling like heavy, warm rain. Drinking at the Gambrinus was done thoroughly. The smart thing to do was for two or three customers sitting together to load the table with empty bottles so thickly that they could not see each other through the green forest of glass.

By the time drinking was at its height, the customers grew red and hoarse and wet. Tobacco smoke stung the eyes. If you wanted to be heard in the general din you had to bend across the table and shout. But the tireless violin of Sashka sitting on his dais held sway over the oppressive heat, the reek of tobacco, gas and beer, and the yelling of the reckless crowd.

Soon the customers, intoxicated with beer, the nearness of women and the heat, wanted each to hear a favourite song. Two or three men with dull eyes and uncertain movements hung constantly about Sashka, tugging at his sleeve and getting in his way.

"Sashka! I want a s-sad one. Please do me—hiccup— the favour!"

"Just a second," Sashka said again and again, with a quick nod, slipping a silver coin into his trouser pocket as noiselessly and deftly as a doctor stowing away his fee. "Just a second."

"How can you be so mean, Sashka? I've given you the money, and I'm asking you for the twentieth time to play 'I sailed to Odessa.' "

"Just a second."

"Give us 'The Nightingale,' Sashka!"

"I want 'Marusya,' Sashka!"

" 'Setz Setz,' Sashka—let's have 'Setz Setz'!"

"Just a second."

" 'The She-e-epherd'!" a man yelled from the other end of the hall, in a voice that might have come from a horse.

And amid general laughter Sashka crowed back like a rooster, "Just a se-e-econd!"

Without pausing to rest, he played all the songs ordered. He seemed to know every single song by heart. Silver coins poured into his pockets from all sides, and mugs of beer were sent to him from every table. Whenever he came down from his dais to go to the bar he was all but torn apart.

"Sashka, my friend! Have just one."

"Here's to you, Sashka. Why don't you come over when you're called, blast you?"

"Sa-ashka, come and have some be-e-er!" the horse's voice blared.

The women who, like all women, were, prone to admire men of the stage, dally with them, show off and grovel before them, called to him in cooing voices, with a playful, insistent little laugh, "Sashka dear, you must absolutely drink one from me. No, I beg you not to refuse. And please play 'Cuckoo Walk.' "

Sashka smiled, grimaced, and bowed right and left; he pressed his hand to his heart, blew kisses to the women, drank beer at every table and, getting back to the piano, on which la fresh mug of beer was waiting for him, struck up "Parting" or something like that. To amuse his audience, he sometimes made his violin whine like a puppy, grunt like a pig, or drone with grating bass notes, in time with the melody. And the audience responded with good-humoured approval and laughter.

It grew hotter. The ceiling dripped; some of the customers were already weeping and beating their chests; others, with bloodshot eyes, were wrangling over women or former offences and setting upon each other, while their more sober boon companions, spongers more often than not, tried to stop them. It was only by some miracle that the waiters managed to thread their way between barrels, kegs, feet land trunks, holding high above them their hands loaded with beer mugs. Mme Ivanova, more bloodless, impassive and mute than ever, ordered the waiters about from behind the bar, like a skipper in a gale.

Everyone was eager to sing. Sashka, softened by beer, his own kindness and the crude pleasure his music gave to others, was willing to play anything. And people bawled to the sounds of his violin in hoarse, stiff voices, sticking to the same note and staring into each other's eyes with vacant earnestness:

Why should we part for ever:
Why should we live apart?
Let's marry now and never,
Oh, never, never part.

Meantime another group, apparently a hostile one, tried hard to drown the voices of the first by bellowing at random a song of its own choice.

The Gambrinus was frequented by Greeks from Asia Minor, who came to Russian ports to fish. They would ask Sashka to play one of their Oriental songs—a dismal, monotonous wail that trailed along over two or three notes, which they were ready to sing for hours, their faces grim, their eyes blazing. Sashka could also play Italian folk songs, Ukrainian dumkas, Jewish wedding dances, and many more. One day a group of Negro sailors dropped in; as the others were singing they felt like doing the same. Sashka was quick to catch the galloping Negro melody and to pick out the accompaniment on the piano; then, to the enormous delight and amusement of habitues, the house rang with the strange, fanciful, guttural sounds of the African song.

A local newspaper reporter, an acquaintance of Sashka's, talked a music-school professor into going to the Gambrinus to hear its famous violinist. But Sashka saw through it and purposely made his violin mew and baa and bray more than usual. The customers were roaring with laughter, but the professor said contemptuously, "A clown."

And he left without finishing his beer.

IV

Quite often the elegant marquesses and carousing German sportsmen, the fat Cupids and the frogs witnessed from their walls such unbridled debauchery as could rarely be seen anywhere but at the Gambrinus.

In would tumble, say, a company of thieves on the spree after a good haul, each with a mistress, each in a cocked cap and high patent-leather boots, with refined tavern manners and a devil-may-care look. For them Sashka would play special thieves' songs: "I'm a Goner Now," "Don't You Cry, Marusya," "Spring Is Over," and others. They considered dancing beneath them, but their girl-friends—all pretty and young, and some of them still in their teens—would dance "The Shepherd" with screams and much heel-tapping. Women and men alike drank a great deal, and the only trouble was that thieves always finished their revelry with old money squabbles, and liked to sneak away without paying the bill.

Fishermen would come after a lucky catch: large companies of up to thirty men. In the late autumn there were sometimes glorious weeks when some forty thousand mackerel or grey mullet would be landed daily. During that time the smallest shareholder would make more than two hundred rubles. However, what paid even better was a good catch of beluga in winter; but that was a very hard job. The men had to toil from twenty to twenty-five miles off shore, at night, sometimes in stormy weather, when waves swept over the boats and the water froze instantly on clothes and oars, and when weather kept the men out at sea for two or three days, till they were washed ashore perhaps a hundred miles away, at Anapa or Trebizond. As many as a dozen yawls were lost every winter, and it was not until spring that the bodies of the courageous fishermen would be cast up on alien shores.

When the men came back from sea with a handsome catch, a craze for excitement would grip them. In two or three days, several thousand rubles would be squandered on the coarsest, the most deadening debauchery. The men would flock to a beerhouse or some other gay place, throw out everyone else, lock the doors and close the shutters, and for fully twenty-four hours would drink, give themselves up to love, bawl songs, smash mirrors and dishes, beat up women and often each other, until sleep overcame them on a table, on the floor, or lying across a bedstead, amid spittle, cigarette ends, bits of broken glass, spilt wine and blood stains. Thus they would go on for several days on end, sometimes moving to another place. Having drunk and eaten away all their money down to the last copper, they would go back, silent and rueful, to their boats. Their heads splitting, their faces bearing marks of fighting, their bodies weak and shaking after the bout, they would take up their beloved and accursed work, so hard and yet so exciting.

They never missed the Gambrinus. They would break into the house, huge men with husky voices, their faces lashed red by the winter nor'easter, in waterproof jackets, leather trousers and oxhide boots reaching to the thighs— the same sort of boots in which their mates went straight to the bottom on a stormy night.

Out of respect for Sashka, they would not turn out strangers, though otherwise they did as they pleased, smashing the heavy mugs on the floor. Sashka would play for them their own songs, long-winded, simple and grim as the sea, and they would all sing in unison, straining their powerful chests and wind-hardened throats. Sashka was like Orpheus taming the waves, and sometimes the hulking skipper of a fishing boat, a bearded man of forty, weather-beaten and brutal, would break into tears as he wailed in a high voice the pitiful words of a song:

Why was I born a fisherman?
A poor and luckless boy—

And sometimes they danced, stony-faced, crashing down their terrific boots on one spot, their bodies and clothes spreading through the house the salty smell of fish. They were very liberal towards Sashka, whom they would not let go from their tables for a long time. He knew well how hard and desperate their life was. Very often, while he was playing for them, a sort of respectful sadness would fill his heart.

But he was particularly fond of playing for British sailors from trading ships. They would come in a band, arm in arm, fine young men all, big-chested, broad-shouldered, white-toothed and ruddy-cheeked, with gay, bold blue eyes. They had muscles that threatened to burst their shirts, and straight powerful necks that rose from the low-cut collars. Some of them knew Sashka because they had put into the port before. They would recognize and greet him in Russian, flashing their white teeth in a friendly smile, "Zdryste!"

Without waiting for an order, Sashka would play "Rule Britannia." Probably because they were at the moment in a country crushed by slavery, they would sing that hymn to British freedom with especial pride and solemnity. They stood bare-headed, singing the wonderful closing words:

Britons never, never, never
Shall be slaves!

And as they did so even their most unruly neighbours would take off their caps in spite of themselves.

A thickset boatswain with an ear-ring and a beard sprouting right from his throat like a fringe would walk over to Sashka with two mugs of beer, grin broadly, give him a friendly pat on the back, and ask him to play a hornpipe. At the very first notes of the rollicking seamen's dance the Englishmen would jump up from their seats and make room by shifting the kegs and barrels to the walls. The others they would ask by gestures and cheerful smiles to get up; they would not, however, stand on ceremony with those who were slow, and would knock the kegs from under them with a deft kick. But they seldom had to resort to that, for at the Gambrinus everybody was fond of dances, and the hornpipe was a favourite. Even Sashka would climb on his chair while playing, in order to see better.

The sailors would form a circle and clap their hands in time with the quick rhythm, while two of them stepped into the middle. The dance represents the sailor's life at sea. The ship is ready to sail, it is a fine day, everything is spick and span. The dancers hold their arms crossed on their chests, their heads are thrown back and their trunks motionless, although the feet are tapping furiously. But a wind rises and the ship begins to roll slightly. This makes it all the merrier for the seamen, and the dance figures become more and more complex and intricate. Then comes a fresh breeze—it is no longer so easy to walk on deck—and the dancers begin to sway a little. Finally a real gale sets in—the sailors are pitched from side to side, and things begin to look serious. "All hands up, take in the sails!" The expressive movements of the dancers' hands and feet show plainly that they are climbing the shrouds, furling the sails and securing the sheets, while the gale rocks the ship harder and harder. "Stop— man overboard!" A life-boat is lowered. Their heads bowed and their sinewy bare necks strained, the dancers row with swift strokes, bending and unbending their backs. But the gale passes, the roll subsides little by little, the sky clears, and once again the ship skims along before the wind, and once again the dancers are tapping the lively hornpipe, their trunks motionless and their arms crossed.

Once in a while Sashka had to play the lezginka for Georgian wine-makers who lived near the city. There were no dances he did not know. As one of the dancers, in sheepskin cap and Circassian coat, whirled nimbly among the barrels, throwing his hands in turn behind his head while his friends clapped in time and egged him on with shouts, Sashka could not help shouting gleefully with them: "Khass! Khass! Khass!" He also played sometimes the Moldavian zhok, the Italian tarantella, and waltzes for German sailors.

Occasionally they fought at the Gambrinus, and some of the fights were quite fierce. Old customers were fond of telling the story of a legendary battle between sailors of the Russian Navy, transferred to the reserve from some cruiser, and British seamen. They fought with fists, knuckledusters and beer mugs, and even hurled kegs at each other. It should be admitted in all fairness that the first to pick a quarrel, and the first to use their knives, were the Russians, and though they were three times superior in numbers to the English they managed to turn them out of the beerhouse only after half an hour's fighting.

Very often Sashka's intervention would stop a brawl when bloodshed seemed imminent. He would go up to the quarrelling group and joke and smile and grimace, and at once mugs would be held out to him from all sides.

"Have a mug, Sashka! Drink with me, Sashka, blast you!"

Perhaps what subdued the wild passions of those simple people was the meek, droll kindness that beamed cheerfully from his eyes under the sloping skull. Or was it a kind of respect for his gift and something like gratitude? It might also have been the fact that most Gambrinus habitues always owed him money. In the trying days of dekokhto, as complete lack of money was called in sea and harbour slang, people applied freely to Sashka for small sums or for a trifling loan at the bar, which he never refused.

Of course, he never got back his money, not because his debtors wanted to harm him, but merely because they forgot; in a moment of great merriment, however, the same debtors would repay him tenfold for his songs.

Sometimes the barmaid upbraided him, "It's amazing how careless you are with your money." He would reply with conviction, "But, Mme Ivanova! I can't take it to my grave! We've got quite enough, Snowdrop and I. Come here, Snowdrop, come, my doggie."

V

The Gambrinus had its own song hits of the season.

During the Boer War the melody in vogue was the "Boer Match" (it was then, it seems, that the famous fight between Russian and British seamen occurred). Sashka had to play the heroic piece about twenty times each evening, and when he had finished caps would be waved, cheers would ring out, and those who appeared indifferent would be glared at in a most unfriendly way, which was often a bad sign at the Gambrinus.

Then came the festivities in connection with the Franco-Russian alliance. Sourly the governor gave permission for the Marseillaise to be played. It also was asked for daily, but not so frequently as the "Boer March" had been; the cheers were thinner, and no caps were waved at all. The reason was, on the one hand, that there were no grounds for heartfelt sentiment and, on the other, that the customers of the Gambrinus did not sufficiently realize the political importance of the alliance; besides, it was always the same people who clamoured for the Marseillaise and cheered it.

Once the melody of the cake-walk became fashionable for a short while, and a chance customer, a carousing merchant, even danced it one night among the barrels, without taking off his raccoon overcoat, high galoshes and fox cap. But this Negro dance was soon forgotten.

The great Japanese war quickened the heartbeat of the Gambrinus customers. Newspapers began to appear on the barrels, and every evening there were discussions about the war. The most unenlightened and peaceful people turned into politicians and strategists, but each of them deep in his soul was afraid for himself or for his brother, or, more often still, for a friend: those days brought out the strong invisible bonds between people who had long shared work, danger and daily encounters with death.

At first no one doubted that Russia would win. Sashka had somewhere come by the "Kuropatkin March," which he played for about twenty nights with some success. But one night the march was ousted for ever by a song brought by Balaklava fishermen—"salty Greeks" or "Pindoses," as they were known.

They took me from you, Mother dear,
And sent me far away—
A babe-in-arms but yesterday,
A man-in-arms today.

From then on they wanted no other songs at the Gambrinus. Throughout the evening the demand would be made again and again, "Give us that sad one, Sashka! The Balaklava stuff! That soldier song, you know."

They would sing and weep, and drink double the usual amount, as did, in fact, the whole of Russia at that time. Every night someone came to say goodbye; he would strut like a rooster, dash his cap down on the floor, threatening to lick all the Japs single-handed, and tearfully finish with the heart-rending song.

One day Sashka came earlier than was his custom. After pouring him his first mug of beer, the barmaid said as she always did, "Play something of your own, Sashka, will you?"

Suddenly his lips twitched and the mug shook in his hand.

"You know what, Mme Ivanova?" he said, as if in wonder. "They're calling me up. For the war."

She wrung her hands.

"You don't say so! You must be joking."

"I'm not." Sashka shook his head in meek dejection. "I mean it."

"But aren't you over age, Sashka? How old are you?" That was a question which somehow no one had asked till then. Everyone imagined that Sashka must be as old as the beerhouse walls, the marquesses, the Ukrainians, the frogs, and Gambrinus himself, the painted king who guarded the entrance.

"Forty-six." Sashka reflected. "Or perhaps forty-nine. I'm an orphan," he added dolefully.

"Then why don't you go and tell that to the authorities?"

"I did, Mme Ivanova."

"Well?"

"Well, they said to me, 'Shut up, you dirty Yid, or we'll put you in the cooler.' And they let me have it."

That evening everyone at the Gambrinus knew, and out of sympathy for Sashka they plied him with beer till he was dead drunk. He tried to show off, to grimace and squint, but his meek, droll eyes looked sad and terrified. A brawny workman, a boiler-maker by trade, suddenly volunteered to go to war instead of Sashka. Everyone saw the absurdity of the offer, but Sashka was moved to tears; he hugged the man and presented him there and then with his violin. And Snowdrop he left to the barmaid.

"Mme Ivanova, please take care of the little dog. I may not come back, then you'll have her to remember me by. Snowdrop, my little dog! See how she's licking her chops. You poor dear! And there's something else I want to ask you, Mme Ivanova. The proprietor owes me some money— please get it and send it to the addresses I'll give you. I've got a cousin in Gomel—he has a family—and then there's my nephew's widow who lives in Zhmerinka. I've been sending them money every month. That's the way with us Jews—we like our relatives. I'm an orphan, and single. Goodbye, Mme Ivanova."

"Goodbye, Sashka! Let's kiss each other goodbye. We've been together for so many years. And—please don't take it amiss—I’ll cross you for good luck."

Sashka's eyes were deeply sorrowful, but he could not help a final clownish joke.

"Don't you think, Mme Ivanova, that the Russian cross might strike me dead?"

VI

Now the Gambrinus had a lonely, deserted look, as though it were orphaned without Sashka and his violin. The proprietor tried to use as a decoy a quartet of strolling mandolin-players, one of whom, attired as a music-hall comedian with red whiskers and a false nose, in checked trousers and a collar rising above his ears, sang comic songs with lewd gestures. But the quartet was a complete failure; in fact, customers booed or flung bits of sausage at the musicians, and the comedian was once given a good hiding by Tendrovo fishermen for a disrespectful comment about Sashka.

Nevertheless, from habit, the house was still frequented by those young men from sea or harbour whom the war had not dragged to suffering and death. At first Sashka's name was mentioned every night.

"I wish Sashka was here! The old place is so lonely without him."

"Yes, I wonder where he is now, poor Sashka."

"In far-away Manchurian fields" someone would start a new season hit, then break off, embarrassed, and someone else would say all of a sudden, "There are three kinds of wounds: perforated, punctured, and incised. And there are also lacerated wounds."

I'm coming home with victory
And you without an arm—

"Stop whining, will you? Any news from Sashka, Mme Ivanova? A letter or a postcard?"

Mme Ivanova had got into the habit of reading the newspaper every night, holding it at arm's length, her head tipped back and her lips moving, while Snowdrop snored peacefully in her lap. The barmaid no longer looked like a cheerful skipper standing on the bridge—far from it—and her crew, listless and sleepy, wandered aimlessly about the house.

When asked about Sashka's fate she would slowly shake her head.

"I know nothing. There are no letters, and the papers don't say anything, either."

Slowly she would take off her spectacles, put them down along with the newspaper beside the warm, snug Snowdrop and, turning away, weep softly.

Sometimes, bending over the little dog, she would say in a small pathetic voice, "Well, Snowdrop my doggie? How's everything, my pet? Where's our Sashka? Hey? Where's your master?"

Snowdrop would raise her delicate little nose, blink her moist black eyes and whimper softly along with the barmaid.

But time takes the edge off everything. The mandolin-players were followed by balalaika-players, and then by a Russo-Ukrainian chorus with girls, and finally Lyoshka the accordion-player established himself at the Gambrinus —more firmly than anyone else had. He was a thief by trade, but since he got married he had decided to take the path of righteousness. He had long been known in various eating-houses, and therefore he was tolerated at the Gambrinus; indeed, he had to be tolerated, for business was very slack.

Months went by—a year passed. No one ever remembered Sashka now, except Mme Ivanova, and even she did hot cry any more at the mention of his name. Another year rolled by. Sashka must have been forgotten even by the little white dog.

However, contrary to Sashka's fears, the Russian cross did not strike him dead; he was not once wounded, although he took part in three big battles and once even went into action at the head of a battalion, as member of a band in which he played the flute. At Wafangkou he was taken prisoner, and after the war a German steamship brought him to the port where his friends worked and made merry.

The news of his arrival spread like wildfire to all the harbours, piers and shipyards. That night the Gambrinus was so crowded that most people had to stand; the mugs of beer were passed overhead from hand to hand, and although many customers left without paying, business was brisker than it had ever been before. The boiler-maker brought Sashka's violin, carefully wrapped in his wife's shawl, which he there and then gave away for a couple of drinks. Sashka's last accompanist was dug up from somewhere and brought in. Lyoshka, touchy and conceited, tried to stand his ground. "I'm paid by the day, and I've got a contract!" he said doggedly again and again. But he was simply thrown out, and would have got a thrashing if Sashka had not intervened.

Probably no hero of the Russo-Japanese War was accorded so hearty and enthusiastic a welcome as Sashka. Strong, horny hands caught hold of him, lifted him from the floor and tossed him up with such force that they almost dashed him against the ceiling. And the shouts were so deafening that the tongues in the gas-jets went out, and the policeman on the beat came in several times to ask them to "take it easy, because it's too noisy outside."

That night Sashka played all the favourite Gambrinus songs and dances. He also played some Japanese songs he had picked up in captivity, but the audience did not like them. Once again Mme Ivanova, who seemed to have come back to life, rose cheerfully on her captain's bridge, and Snowdrop sat on Sashka's knees and yelped with joy. At moments, when Sashka stopped playing, some simple-minded fisherman, who had just grasped the meaning of Sashka's miraculous return, would suddenly exclaim in naive and joyful amazement, "Why, it's Sashka back again!" That would bring uproarious laughter and a volley of merry oaths, and once again people would snatch up Sashka, toss him to the ceiling, shout, drink, clink mugs, and spill beer over each other.

Sashka did not seem to have changed or aged during his absence; time and misfortune had as little effect on his appearance as on that of the sculptured Gambrinus, the patron and protector of the house. But, with the sensitiveness of a kind-hearted woman, Mme Ivanova had noticed that Sashka's eyes still held the look of terror and anguish which she had seen in them before he went away, except that the look had become deeper and more significant. Sashka struck attitudes as he had always done, winked and wrinkled his forehead, but Mme Ivanova saw he was pretending.

VII

Things slipped back into their normal course, as if there had been no war at all and Sashka had not been taken prisoner in Nagasaki. A happy catch of beluga or grey mullet was celebrated as usual by fishermen in giant top-boots, thieves' girl-friends danced as usual, and as before Sashka played sailors' songs brought from all the harbours of the globe.

But unsettled and stormy times were on the way. One evening the whole city began to buzz and bustle as if an alarm-bell had rung, and the streets turned black with people at an unusual hour. Small white leaflets passed from hand to hand, and from mouth to mouth went the wonderful word "freedom," which the whole immense, credulous country repeated that evening.

There came bright, joyful days whose radiance lit up even the basement of the Gambrinus. Among those who went there now were students and workmen, and young, beautiful girls. People with shining eyes would climb on barrels, which had witnessed so much in their time, and make speeches. Some of what they said was not clear, but the fervent hope and great love ringing through the speeches would find their echo in eager, listening hearts.

"Sashka, the Marseillaise! Fire away! The Marseillaise!"

This time the Marseillaise was different from the one which the governor had grudgingly authorized during the week of Franco-Russian jubilations. Endless processions of people carrying red flags and singing songs moved along the streets. Women displayed scarlet ribbons and scarlet flowers. Complete strangers would meet and suddenly shake hands with a beaming smile.

But suddenly all the joy disappeared, as if it had been washed away like children's footprints on the sea-shore. One day the assistant police commissioner, a fat, puffy little man, burst into the Gambrinus, his eyes starting from their sockets, his face as red as an overripe tomato.

"What? Who's the proprietor here?" he cried hoarsely. "Get the proprietor!"

His eye fell on Sashka, who stood holding his violin.

"Are you the proprietor? Shut up! What? So you play anthems, do you? No more anthems here!"

"There'll be no more anthems, Your Excellency," Sashka replied calmly.

The assistant commissioner went purple and wagged his forefinger threateningly close to Sashka's nose:

"None what-ev-ver!"

"Yes, Your Excellency, none whatever."

"I'll show you how to start revolutions, I will!"

He popped out, leaving general despondency behind.

Darkness settled over the city. There were obscure rumours, alarming and sickening. People spoke cautiously, fearful of betraying themselves by la look, afraid of their own shadows, their own thoughts. For the first time the city thought with dread of the foul swamp stirring darkly under its feet, down by the sea, the swamp into which, over so many years, it had been ejecting its poisonous excrements. The city nailed up with boards the plate-glass windows of its splendid shops, stationed guards by the proud monuments, and set up guns in the yards of magnificent houses—just in case. And on the outskirts, in fetid hovels and leaking garrets, God's chosen people trembled, prayed and wept with terror, people long forsaken by the wrathful biblical God but still believing that they had not yet drained their cup of sufferings to the lees.

Below, by the sea, secret work was going on in the streets, which were like dark, sticky sewers. The doors of taverns, tea-rooms and doss-houses stood open all night.

Next morning came a pogrom. Those very people who, moved by the general pure joy and the light of future brotherhood, had so recently marched along the streets singing, parading the symbols of freedom won, were now out to kill. And it was not because they had been ordered to kill, or because they felt a hatred for the Jews, with whom they were often very friendly, or even because they hoped for gain, which was uncertain, but because the dirty, cunning devil that lives in every man was whispering in their ears, "Go. You'll be free to taste the forbidden curiosity of murder, the luxury of rape, or power over another's life."

During the pogrom Sashka walked about the city unmolested, with his droll, typically Jewish face. He had that unshakeable boldness of spirit, that quality of being unafraid of fear, which protects even a weak man better than all the guns in the world. But one day when, pressed to the wall of a house, he was trying to keep out of the way of a mob sweeping in an avalanche along the street, a stone-mason in red shirt and white apron swung up his chisel and snarled, "A Yid! Give it to him! Let's see the colour of his blood!"

But someone caught him by the arm.

"Stop, damn you—don't you see it's Sashka? You blasted fathead!"

The stone-mason paused. At that delirious moment of drunken madness, he was ready to kill anybody—his father or sister, a priest, or even the Orthodox God himself; but he was equally ready to obey like a child any order given to him in a commanding tone.

He simpered like an idiot, spat, and wiped his nose on his sleeve. But suddenly he noticed a nervous little white dog that snuggled up to Sashka, trembling. He stooped down quickly, grabbed it by the hind legs, lifted it high, dashed its head against the paving stones, and started to run. Sashka stared after him in silence. The man was running along capless, his body bent forward and arms stretched out, his mouth gaping and eyes round and white with madness.

Snowdrop's brains were scattered over Sashka's boots. He wiped them off with his handkerchief.

VIII

Next came a strange period that was like the sleep of a paralyzed man. After dusk there was no light in any window throughout the city, but the signboards of cafes chantants and the windows of taverns were ablaze with light. The victors were trying their power, for they had not yet had their fill of licensed lawlessness. Unruly individuals, wearing Manchurian fur caps and with St. George ribbons in the buttonholes of their jackets, went from one restaurant to another, truculently insisting that the "people's anthem" should be played and seeing to it that everybody got on his feet. They would even break into homes and rummage in bedsteads and chests of drawers, demanding vodka, money and the anthem, and fouling the air with their drunken belching.

Once ten of them came to the Gambrinus and took up two tables. Their manner was extremely defiant and their tone towards the waiters imperious; they would spit over the shoulders of neighbours who were complete strangers to them, put their feet on other people's seats, or pour their beer on the floor, saying that it was stale. Nobody interfered with them. Generally known as police agents, they were regarded with the same kind of secret dread and morbid curiosity which ordinary people have towards executioners. One of them was plainly the ringleader. He was Motka the Snuffler, a christened Jew with red hair, a broken nose and a twanging voice. He was said to have great physical strength; originally a thief, he had become a chucker-out in a brothel, then a pimp and police agent.

Sashka was playing the "Blizzard." Suddenly the Snuffler stepped up to him, clutched his right arm and, turning to face the hall, shouted, '"'The anthem! The people's anthem! In honour of our adored monarch, lads. The anthem!"

"The anthem! The anthem!" boomed the fur-capped ruffians.

"The anthem!" a solitary, uncertain voice called diffidently from the far end.

But Sashka wrenched his arm free and said calmly, "No anthems here."

"What?" roared the Snuffler. "You dare to disobey? Why, you stinking Yid!"

Sashka bent forward, very close to the Snuffler; wrinkling his face and holding the violin down by the finger-board, he said, "How about you?"

"What about me?"

"Suppose I am a stinking Yid. And you?"

"I'm an Orthodox Christian."

"A Christian? How much did you get for that?"

The Gambrinus rocked with laughter, while the Snuffler, white with rage, turned to his partners.

"Lads!" he said in a quavering, tearful voice, repeating somebody else's words learned by heart. "How much longer are we going to put up with the Yids' outrages against the Throne and the Holy Church?"

But Sashka rose on his dais and made the Snuffler face him again, and no Gambrinus customer would ever have believed that the droll, grimacing Sashka could speak so weightily and imperiously.

"You!" he shouted. "You son of a bitch! Show me your face, you murderer. Look at me! Well?"

Everything happened in the twinkling of an eye. Sashka's violin swung high up, flashed in the air and bang! the tall man in the fur cap swayed from the blow that caught him on the temple. The violin flew into pieces. Sashka had nothing left in his hand but the finger-board, which he now held triumphantly above the crowd.

"He-elp, lads!" yelled the Snuffler.

But it was too late. A powerful wall encircled Sashka, shutting him off. And the same wall swept out the fur-capped men.

However, an hour later, when Sashka walked out of the beerhouse after finishing his work, several men attacked him. Someone hit him in the eye, blew a whistle, and said to the policemen who came running, "Take him to the Boulevard Station. On a political charge. Here's my badge."

IX

Once again Sashka was considered lost, this time for good. Someone had witnessed the scene on the pavement by the beerhouse and reported it to others. Now those who patronized the Gambrinus were experienced people; they knew what sort of an establishment the Boulevard Station was and what a police agent's vengeance was like.

But this time Sashka's fate caused much less anxiety than the first, and he was forgotten much sooner. Two months later a new fiddler had taken his place. By the way, he was Sashka's pupil.

Some three months afterwards, on a quiet evening in spring, when the musicians were playing the waltz "Expectation," someone sang out in a thin, frightened voice, "Look, lads—Sashka!"

Everybody turned and got up from the kegs. Yes, it was Sashka, sure enough, risen from the dead for the second time, but bearded and haggard. People rushed to him, surrounding him, hugging him and thrusting mugs of beer into his hand. But suddenly the same voice cried, "Look at his arm, friends!"

There was a hush. The elbow of Sashka's left arm, twisted and seemingly crushed, was pressed to his side. Apparently he could not bend or unbend it, and his fingers stuck up near his chin.

"What's that, mate?" a hairy boatswain from the Russian Co. asked finally.

"Oh, it's nothing," replied Sashka carelessly, "a damaged tendon or something."

"Is that so!"

There was another pause.

"So The Shepherd' is out now?" asked the sympathetic boatswain.

"'The Shepherd'?" Sashka's eyes gleamed playfully. "Hey, you!" he shouted to the accompanist, with his habitual assurance. "Begin 'The Shepherd'! Ein, zwei, drei!"

The pianist started to rap out the merry dance, glancing back doubtfully. But with his right hand—the sound one—Sashka drew from his pocket a black, oblong instrument, the size of a man's palm, with a branch piece, which he put in his mouth; then, bending to the left as far as his maimed, stiff arm would let him, he suddenly started to whistle on the ocarina the gay, irresistible melody of "The Shepherd."

"Ha-ha-ha!" the audience greeted it with joyous laughter.

"Ain't he a devil!" cried the boatswain and, to his own surprise, burst into an impetuous dance. Customers—men and women—joined him. The waiters smilingly beat time with their feet, trying, however to keep up a dignified appearance. Even Mme Ivanova, forgetting the duties of a skipper on his bridge, nodded her head to the rhythm of the lively dance, and snapped her fingers slightly. It might well be that even the old, porous, time-worn Gambrinus was twitching his eyebrows, looking gaily out into the street, and it seemed as if the pitiful, unpretentious whistle in the hands of the crippled, twisted Sashka was singing in a tongue that was unfortunately still unintelligible either to the friends of the Gambrinus or to Sashka himself:

"It's all right! You can cripple a man, but art survive and triumph over anything."

1907


The Odessa Journal

The Odessa Journal

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